Flying high

Danielle Custer returns to Seattle with a menu to reckon with.

727 PINE

Elliott Grand Hyatt Seattle, 727 Pine, 774-6400 breakfast 6:30-11 a.m., dinner 5:30-10 p.m., bar menu 2:30p.m.-1 a.m. all major credit cards / full bar

OTHER THINGS being equal, seekers of extraordinary cooking don't often find their prey in hotel restaurants. And, other things being equal, it takes even the most ambitious culinary operations time to shake down and show best what they can do. 727 Pine, in the new Elliott Grand Hyatt Seattle, breaks both these time-tested rules. Almost from opening day, the food at 727 has met and exceeded any reasonable standard of excellence, in savor, flair, and presentation, for any genre of restaurant whatever. If this is "hotel cooking," it is hotel cooking of a quality that one might encounter in the best accommodations in Paris, Zurich, or London.

At a time when the food-fashion pendulum is swinging strongly in the homey comfort-food direction, Danielle Custer's cuisine is unashamedly fancy, even flamboyant. Every dish arrives primped to the nines, as artificial and elegant as a cocktail hat on a Lagerfeld model, an edible Frank Gehry assemblage of terraced, textured layers and levels surrounded by polychrome swirls and ploops.

Custer was inspired to become a chef by New York's founding fathers of fusion cuisine—Charles Palmer of l'Aureole, David Burke of the Park Avenue Caf鬠 Alfred Portale of Gotham, and, above all, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Their example, plus her five years at Fullers with Caprial Pence and Monique Barbeau, have given her the craft and courage needed to counter the drift back to flabby faux home-cookin' with her own new kind of grand cuisine.

There's one enormous difference, however, between Custer's creations and your typical overworked kitchen couture: In a Custer, everything is there for a reason, every ingredient chimes off every other. Take, for example, the lobster and avocado appetizer ($14): The topping of chewy lobster plays off the crisp sliver of toasted brioche at the base, while every jewel-like chunk of avocado between sings out individually through an evanescent veil of blood-orange oil. When you discover that the tiny dabs of opalescent goo dotting the plate are fragrant with lobster coral, the dish rounds into three-dimensional drama for the palate.

I could write a paragraph very nearly as overwrought about every dish I've tasted on the 727 menu. Every item "reads" like an essay in creative combinations of recherch頩ngredients and eats like a dream. An intriguing brown mound resembling heaped-up chestnuts in their husks resolves into two tiny portions of spice-crusted quail and miniature "hush-puppies," all concealing a "relish" of warm black-eyed peas dressed in fragrant garlic-chili oil ($14). Tequila-cured gravlax cozies up to arugula and sturgeon caviar atop a chewy corn cake ($10). A two-tuna tartare "Napoleon" is scented with miso and garnished with whitefish caviar and a tiny quail egg ($12) for a rhapsody of sea-scents and textures.

AND THAT'S JUST the appetizers. Rather than gush about the entr饳 sampled, I leave it to the reader to conjure from menu descriptions, with the stipulation that reality will exceed your most optimistic imaginings: kasu-marinated wild salmon, Asian risotto, soy-ginger vinaigrette, cucumber slaw, and green-tea glaze ($24); herb-dusted sea scallops, buttered green beans, tomato fondue, lemon verbena oil, and truffle ($25); Columbia River sturgeon, savory Israeli couscous, wilted pea vines, and smoked onion-tomato vinaigrette ($27); lean Texas boar chops lightly smoked and dusted with North African spices with two-potato gnocchi ($32).

One dish, however, calls for special comment. Though it appears only on the special prix-fixe steak-eater's menu (three courses, choice of three cuts and three rubs, $55), you owe it to yourself to order Custer's lobster and shrimp enchilada. It's a light meal in itself, and a post-graduate education in the melding of colors, flavors, and textures: dark-green corn tortilla, bright green chili-lime cream, piquant tomatillo salsa—all playing off the fresh aromas of the seafood.

Custer's inspired cuisine is matched by Erik Liedholm's extraordinary wine list, which is most extraordinary for its wide range of wines-by-the-glass, including some remarkable values in the $5 and $6 area, along with some startling (but still priceworthy) items at five times that.

Kriss Harvey's desserts are, if anything, more fantasmagoric in presentation than Custer's dishes, but hew to exactly the same principles: perfect ingredients, fancifully, though perhaps not so exquisitely, matched. His lemon financier ($7), based on a classic French pastry recipe, is simply the best lemon cake I've ever tasted, rendering the scooplet of rice-pudding ice atop it almost irrelevant. His unfortunately named "peanut butter and jelly" dessert ($8) is actually a flavor fantasia on the theme "chocolate" in which peanut, thankfully, plays only a mild supporting role.

One of the erosive pressures on hotel restaurants is the need to serve from morning to night and often on again until morning. 727 is spared the worst of these pressures, since a separate catering kitchen takes care of room service. But a deco-styled bar that fills half the restaurant's space deserves its own menu, and gets it, with grilled items such as hot spicy prawn cocktail ($12), smoked lamb riblets ($10), cockles and mussels in Thai-basil broth ($9), and, after 5:30 p.m., that compulsory lobster enchilada ($13).

It's a very much don't-try-this-at-home cuisine, but one as committed to the fundamentals of freshness, flavor, and goodness as the most chaste, spartan the-ingredient-is-king could ask. Overnight, we have a new great restaurant in town. Let's celebrate.

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